In the late 12th century a Flemish priest named Lambert le Begue established a community in Liège for the widows of crusaders who had not returned from the Holy Land. Without a protector, such women often felt obliged to seek security by joining a religious order, but many of them did not wish to devote their lives exclusively to religion. Called Beguines, the women lived in walled districts called beguinages.
Beguines took no religious vows. They could leave and marry, if they chose. They could own property and took no alms. Women of all classes were welcomed, and wealthy Beguines often brought their servants with them. They carried on professions, often in the textile industry; they did good works, such as teaching or caring for the sick. They elected women — Grandes Dames — to lead their communities. Each Beguine was expected to support herself and make a contribution to the beguinage, through work or rent payments. They had no motherhouse, no common rule, no general of the order. Every community was run according to its own rules.
Such institutions flourished in northern Europe in the High Middle Ages, particularly in the Low Countries, in northern France and the Rhineland, although they never took off in England, Norwich being the only city where there is evidence of such informal female communities. . . .
Marcella Pattyn was born in the Belgian Congo on August 18 1920 and, as a child, dreamed of entering a missionary religious order. But as she was almost blind she was rejected by several communities. It was only when a rich aunt intervened with a donation that she was accepted into the beguinage of St Amandsberg in Ghent in 1941.
There, and at the beguinage of St Elizabeth at Courtrai, where she moved in 1960, she spent her days praying, knitting clothes, weaving and making Beguine dolls, which she sold to tourists. She played the organ in the chapel and gave comfort to the sick by entertaining them on the banjo or accordion. In her later years she became a familiar figure in the streets of Courtrai, whizzing around in a motorised wheelchair.
In 1960 she was one of a community of nine. By 2008, when she moved into a nursing home, she had become, officially, the only surviving Beguine in the world.
beguinages in Flanders, especially in Leuven, Bruges, and Tongeron, and the accompanying "Beguinage Churches", where the Beguines attended Mass. In Bruges I remember the tour guide's flippant remark that there just weren't enough men to go around, so the young women starting living together. I particularly enjoyed a visit to Tongeren, the home of my hostesses' grandmother, with its great beguinage and St. Catherine's Church. For me, Tongeren was doubly fascinating not only because of the beguinage, St. Catherine's and the beautiful Gothic basilica of Our Lady, but also because of its Gallo-Roman museum and its great hero Ambiorix, who rebelled against the Romans and Julius Caesar. Unfortunately, at that time during my travels, I was not a very good photographer, as my husband often complained. (And at the time, we did not have digital cameras!) Not much to share, I'm afraid. (photo source: Wikipedia commons.) More on Tongeren here.
In the early thirteenth century, semireligious communities of women began to form in the cities and towns of the Low Countries. These beguines, as the women came to be known, led lives of contemplation and prayer and earned their livings as laborers or teachers.
In Cities of Ladies, the first history of the beguines to appear in English in fifty years, Walter Simons traces the transformation of informal clusters of single women to large beguinages. These veritable single-sex cities offered lower- and middle-class women an alternative to both marriage and convent life. While the region's expanding urban economies initially valued the communities for their cheap labor supply, severe economic crises by the fourteenth century restricted women's opportunities for work. Church authorities had also grown less tolerant of religious experimentation, hailing as subversive some aspects of beguine mysticism. To Simons, however, such accusations of heresy against the beguines were largely generated from a profound anxiety about their intellectual ambitions and their claims to a chaste life outside the cloister. Under ecclesiastical and economic pressure, beguine communities dwindled in size and influence, surviving only by adopting a posture of restraint and submission to church authorities.
Walter Simons is Associate Professor of History at Dartmouth College.
I wonder if I will ever have the opportunity to return to Belgium, to Brussels and Bruges, Antwerp and Leuven, Mechelen and Tongeren--and visit Ghent for the first time to see the "Mystic Lamb"--this time with a digital camera and taking lots of pictures!